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Reunion In Budapest

ISSUE:  Spring 1992

There has been more mail from Budapest since the Hungarians tore down the barbed wire, visual symbol of the Iron Curtain, and opened their frontier with Austria to thousands of East Germans fleeing their country through Hungary to the West. That was the finest hour of the “reform Communist” government, as its act of defying a Warsaw Pact ally unchained the forces which quickly led to the toppling of the Berlin Wall. Events were hardly slower to unfold in Hungary itself. The remains of Imre Nagy and his fellow martyrs of the 1956 revolution were exhumed from their unmarked graves and solemnly reburied in the presence of hundreds of thousands. Elections, in which the Communists, reform or not, were routed as a party, soon followed. And, the heady new beginning so aptly depicted in the U.S. television commercial hailing the purchase of a venerable Hungarian light-bulb factory by an American corporate giant was launched—all in a matter of months.

At first, the letters of my Hungarian contemporaries—most of them high school classmates in the 1930’s—reflected the exhilaration of these events and, even more, their pride over Hungary’s having negotiated the changes without violence, without any settling of old accounts. Gradually there came a realization that the remaking of government, politics, and, most of all, the economy along radically new lines would be an enterprise of many years. My correspondents are increasingly aware that it will be the task of their children, for the benefit of their grandchildren. They are pained to admit that there is no part in it for them. They also find that survival on frozen retirement incomes in an economy of prices freely rising to reflect “the realities of the market” is ever more difficult.

It is a completely different world there now than the one in which we, high school friends—”the Class”—spent three days together almost four years ago in June 1988. That “reform Communist” world—not free, not prosperous, but apparently relatively stable and livable, no longer malevolent—was just “normal” enough to serve as the backdrop (largely ignored by the actors) for a reunion which affected me, as many of the others, more than we would have ever thought possible. It preoccupied me for many weeks, and I made copious notes about the events of those three days and the mass of memories which they evoked.

We gathered from around the city, the country, and the world to recall the two, or four, or eight years which we spent at the worn school desks of the Royal Hungarian “King Matthew” High School. We came together to catch up with whole lifetimes of news about each other and to remember those—teachers and classmates—taken from among us by illness, the ravages of our extraordinary age, or simply by the passage of time itself. It was a reunion like so many others, of aging men who, in the words of the “Peanuts” cartoon, have “new careers—of going back to things.” Yet, most of us there, including our wives, some of whom had to find ways to overcome the formidable barrier of the Hungarian language, felt that this was more than that. More exciting, more moving, somehow more charged with meaning.

It was a sunny and mild June day, just like the day half a century earlier when the “Eighth” of the “Matthew” bade its official adieu to the old school. “Gaudeamus igitur juvenes dum su-u-mus,” we had sung the old Latin scholars’ song, though our merriment was moderated by the brutal terminal exams still looming ahead, and perhaps also by a sense of impending historical disasters. We then formed a single file, right hands on right shoulders, intoning the more mournful melody of the Hungarian song about old students wandering out into the uncertainties of life. Repeating the song endlessly, we walked through the stately, somewhat seedy school building, interrupting classes as we circled each room, then down the hill to the site of the temporary barracks where we had first assembled, ten-year-old baby-boomers born in the wake of World War I. The girls’ school, more permanently housed across the street, was still there, and its students pressed to their classroom windows to observe the procession with perhaps more than casual interest in some of its participants.

Now, 50 years later, the building was older and even seedier and housed some kind of pedagogical institute, with only a tablet by the gate identifying it as the former home of the King Matthew High School. The school itself fell victim to some reorganization a good many years earlier. The current tenants kindly put a room at our disposal for our solemn “academic” session, and we could place a wreath beneath the memorial tablet. The reunion was the work of Levente, the retired engineer, who had devoted some two years of intensive, committed labor to finding all of us all over the world, to prevailing on most of us to come, and to organizing sensitively and painstakingly a three-day program which most of those who came will long remember.

Some of us, including all who had come from abroad, met at Levente’s lovely villa in the Buda hills the afternoon before the start of the official program. Many of us had been out of touch for some 50 years. But the atmosphere, as that of the meetings with the others the next day, was easy, almost casual—as if we assembled for a new school year at the end of a somewhat prolonged summer vacation. There was, of course, talk about the intervening years, and there was a good deal of remembering. Levente came up with an old uniform cap with the school’s coat of arms—an occasion for the wives to snap pictures of their old boys as would-be high-schoolers.

Gyuri was there, a retired Israeli civil servant, come much against his initial instincts, on the urging of Levente, who had especially gone to visit him. It had been a difficult decision for Gyuri. Right after graduation he had gone to France to study, then fled the approaching Wehrmacht to Italy, until he finally made it to Haifa, where his sister already served in a Jewish unit of the British army. They had an evening together before she was to leave on a secret mission. As it turned out, Aniko was to be infiltrated into Hungary. She was apprehended, tried, and executed as a spy. Gyuri had understandable qualms about visiting his home town, which was also the site of his sister’s martyrdom. On that first afternoon, he did not yet seem certain that he ought to have come.

Dini and his wife had come from Northern Germany. He had a successful career as a surgeon and distinguished professor of surgical anatomy at the Budapest Medical School behind him when he came into some kind of conflict with the regime in the early 60’s and left to start a new career as a surgeon in the Federal Republic. He was the last in the group to have left Hungary and found it perhaps hardest to come to terms with his injuries sustained at the time.

Most had sustained injuries of one kind or another, those who left and those who stayed behind. Jeno had graduated from law school, had to join the Hungarian army, spent many months as a prisoner of war in the West, and was precluded by his “bourgeois” origins from practicing law on his return. After years as a factory worker, at the time of the 1956 revolution, he, his wife, and two young sons joined the wave of refugees to America. There were years of considerable hardship at first, but eventually he found a good livelihood and some satisfaction as an industrial engineer in a large enterprise and now lives in well-earned retirement in Pennsylvania. Kalman’s story was different. A professional army officer, he had the worst of the war on the Eastern front and an extended stay in Soviet prisoner-of-war camps. Thanks to his engineering training, his job on his return to Hungary seems to have been a shade better than Jeno’s, but he and his wife joined the latter on the adventurous trek over the Austrian border and to the United States. He is now a busy construction engineer in Delaware.

Lars—we used to call him Laci—and his wife were protected from the Nazis by the legendary Swedish diplomat, Raoul Wallenberg, and worked with him in protecting others. After the war, they went to Sweden. He became an outstanding scientist, member of the Nobel Prize committee, and retired only recently from his chair at the Karolingske University in Stockholm, but not from his role in several important international scientific organizations. She made an impressive career as a violinist.

Another Laci had become a prosperous businessman in Canada, Jancsi a professor of economics at a first-class American university. Both got there over many obstacles and survived many vicissitudes.

There was a good deal of personal and world history to catch up on. After we left Levente’s, a few of us joined Lars and his wife for drinks at their room at the elegant guest house of the Hungarian Academy of Science (of which he is now an honorary member) and then proceeded to dinner at a nearby restaurant. We heard of others. Lars’ best school friend, yet another Laci, became an army medical officer after the war, a colonel-radiologist at the peak of his career. One of the classmates had to undergo an army physical to finally sever his connections with the reserve. In the course of it, in the X-ray department, a voice greeted him in the dark from behind the fluoroscope—a voice he had not heard in some 45 years. It was a warm meeting in odd circumstances—but Laci’s death soon thereafter prevented another.

We met all the “boys”—there were 32 of us, from a graduating class of 65—at church the next morning. Janos, by now a Monsignor, celebrated an ecumenical Mass for us at the Gothic Coronation Church on the Castle Hill. We then made the short, steep descent to the old school for our formal session. Levente opened with an overview of the history of the class before and since graduation, some statistics, the results of his thorough, unrelenting research efforts, the assembling of a thick dossier of brief autobiographies of those of us still living and biographies, as best they could be reconstructed, of the classmates who could no longer be with us and of all our teachers. He had succeeded in tracking down all but one. His traces disappeared some time after the war in Switzerland. Almost all whom Levente reached were eager to participate in the reunion. One, living in a small English town, wrote in faulty Hungarian that the memories of his youth were so unhappy that he preferred to forget them; and, a senior judge in Budapest wrote a curt letter wishing us well.

After Levente’s report, Joseph, a journalist and Communist Party activist, remembered our dead. Miklos, literary critic, educator, and member of the Hungarian Academy of Science, spoke of our teachers. Practically all of them were strong personalities, totally serious about the disciplines they taught and absolutely devoted to their profession. Almost all of them had gone through the hardening and deepening experience of service as line officers in the first World War; several had physical disabilities to show for it. Miklos spoke from the vantage point of a former high school teacher with some responsibility on behalf of the Academy for the supervision of secondary education. He also had some political commitment to the current order of things. Still, he left no doubt that schools and teachers were no longer what they had been. He wondered whether we had not been exceptionally fortunate with our teachers—whether faculties of other prewar high schools were as impressive as that of the “Matthew.” Ours was a relatively new school, and there could not have been a great deal of prestige attached to being assigned to teach there. Perhaps those who were assigned to our school had something “slightly wrong” with them in the eyes of the conservative authorities—a touch of nonconformism or independence not found in members of the fortunate elite destined for more glamorous teaching careers. . .

Fresh from following the debates about the crisis in American education, I was struck by the apparent parallel with the present Hungarian situation and by the differences between Hungarian high schools as I once knew them and schools— here and there—as they seem to be now. Some of the changes may well be accounted for by the much broader access— certainly here and probably in Hungary as well—to academic secondary education. The “Matthew” and other similar schools were destined for a very small percentage of the cohort, basically self-selected by the social and economic status and the educational background and aspirations of the parents. It was easier to maintain standards with students for whom the possibility of academic failure or disciplinary dismissal (only about a third of us who started together at age ten actually graduated) represented a true threat. It was easier to recruit sufficient truly competent faculty, most of them holding Ph. D.’s in the disciplines they taught, for a relatively small part of the school-age population than it would be for the bulk of it. And, it was probably somewhat easier to teach in a society in which youngsters were taught to respect their elders than in one worshipping youth. It was a simpler, less mobile world (I was not aware of any classmate’s family owning a car), with no TV and few distractions. And, of course, no drugs.

However, even allowing for all these factors, I have long felt that in the United States we have complicated some of our problems excessively. In the Hungary of our time nobody pretended that the school’s task was other than to purvey knowledge and to instill the love of it, if possible. All would have laughed at one of the favorite slogans of American educationists as late as two or three decades ago—that it is not important to teach subject matter; that what matters is to “teach the child.” Yet the teachers were role models, last but not least because of their competence in the subjects which they taught. Some went far beyond that as educators—but they did it of their own volition and in their own ways. Teacher education, other than practice teaching, was not an important part of their preparation. It was their background and their personality that dictated what they did and how they went about it.

Dr. Polgary taught Hungarian and Latin. In addition, he was our classroom teacher for the first six years. His role was enhanced by the fact that “the class” was more of a reality than in American schools, as we took just about all of the subjects together. There were no electives. The classroom teacher presided over the periodic teacher conferences, where each student’s progress in all subjects was discussed and the attention and experience of all was focused on whatever problems he might have had. We were judged individually “in the round.” Polgary knew each of us well. Alphabetically, one by one, we took our turns meeting him in front of the church where he attended early morning Mass, for the half-hour walk to school. He was a man of impressive stature with a head not unlike that of the Roman senator whose bust reproduced in plaster decorated the art room. His short hair was white even when we first saw him as ten-year-olds. He could not have been more than 40 then. As he walked with us in those early years, he had to bend down to hear us, but he was a good listener. He also told us about the things that were important to him in life and about his plans for the class. These were easy conversations but never without substance.

Polgary had prepared for the priesthood but left his order before taking his final vows, perhaps in order to serve in the Great War. He distinguished himself in the service, was highly decorated, and entitled to use the word “vitéz” — “brave”—in front of his name. He fought in the same unit with his best friend, who died of wounds in Polgary’s arms after asking him to look out for his widow. Polgary married her after the war. They had no children (rumor had it that, out of respect for his priestly vows, the marriage was never consummated), and he devoted all his energies to his vocation as an educator. He was determined to teach us to take responsibility for our actions regardless of the consequences, and he did all he could to mitigate the consequences when one of us came forward to report his misdeed. He also nurtured our loyalty to each other and, for all his emphasis on discipline, showed contempt for anyone who would report or point a finger at another. Class cohesion was amazing, to the point of conspiracy against any teacher whom we judged to be unfair to anyone. I remember an episode when we were about 14. One of the boys, in the course of recess horseplay, broke a fairly expensive piece of equipment in the science classroom, in which we were then housed. We knew that the boy came from a poor family and that his action was punishable. Within minutes we had collected what we guessed the cost of the damage might be and got the culprit to report to Polgary what he had done and hand him the money. As expected, our classroom teacher was proud of his boys—he undoubtedly knew where the money must have come from— and the matter was never mentioned again. About that time, he appointed a student court and transferred to it all disciplinary responsibilities. I do not recall his ever having overturned a peer decision. On the other hand, any sign of dishonesty, evasion, or antisocial behavior provoked his wrath of almost Biblical proportions.

Profoundly conservative in his values, and working with children of mostly prosperous parents in a very conservative state, Polgary nevertheless wanted to open our eyes to the less attractive sides of our civilization and to the misery of people with whom we normally had little contact. One year—we may have been 15 at the time—he broke with the tradition of class outings for museum visits and picnics, saying that we could do those things with our families. Instead, he took us to the stock yards, transforming many of us into vegetarians for weeks following the experience. He showed us the waste disposal system of the city, from the main sewers on whose filthy water we floated in small boats, to the purification plants and the outlets into the Danube downstream from the city. As Christmas approached, he arranged for a class excursion to the “Field of the Angels,” Budapest’s largest and most shameful slum. Each of us took a small amount of groceries to the family which had invited him for the noon meal. For the rest, Polgary left it to our better instincts to listen and to learn.

Polgary’s pedagogy did not fare well in the postwar Communist world. Accused of militarism, he was readmitted to teaching only on the intervention of some of our classmates who had influence in the regime. But he was soon forced into retirement. Dini ran into him by chance, and he complained about his health. Dini got him to check into the hospital for an examination. He operated on him for cancer, but it was too late.

It fell to Dini to operate on another one of our teachers shortly after the war. As a young surgeon, he happened to be on duty in the emergency ward of a downtown hospital when an ambulance delivered Dr. Csoka, just hit by a streetcar. His foot had to be amputated. Even then and there, he was the fine and considerate gentleman whom we had known in history classes over eight years. . . . In each of perhaps a thousand classroom hours. Dr. Csoka had delivered a polished lecture with spellbinding rhetoric and intonation, painting word pictures of great events of the past, describing with admiration great men who exemplified the classical virtues of bravery, straight talk, and public spirit, and leaving no doubt about his scorn for the all too many villains of history. We chuckled at times at his very flavorful, rustic Hungarian pronunciation of the many Latin quotations with which he laced his lectures and at some of his mannerisms, but he never failed to hold our rapt attention. History, as Dr. Csoka taught it, was exciting, clear, and, somehow, even moral. No, he did not teach us scholarly skepticism—in the world we lived in, we had little trouble acquiring that on our own—but he did give us models, real or just a bit fictitious, in whom it was possible and reassuring to believe.

Dr. Denes was the youngest of our teachers. We had him for French and, in the last two years, for Hungarian literature. He had studied at the Sorbonne, sometimes spoke to some of us about French relatives (who were always a bit mysterious and eventually, many decades later, turned out to have been imaginary), and was publishing stories and essays in progressive Roman Catholic periodicals. An excellent musician, he conducted the school orchestra and brought it to a respectable level of quality. His great and largely unfulfilled love was the theatre. He sometimes played a little theatre in class, which we were not slow to identify as such, but he taught us a great deal, in the way of excellent French pronunciation and, more important, about the understanding and appreciation of literature, French and Hungarian. He placed greater emphasis than most teachers both on originality of thought and good writing whether in officially judging our class work or informally discussing with us our contributions to the literary circle, which he observed as “teacher chairman.” He had been too young to fight in the first World War but did not escape the second, including the long and painful experience of a Soviet prisoner-of-war camp. After the trauma of an airplane hijacking and some other traumas, he joined the 1956 wave of refugees to the West. Several of us, his former students living abroad, were in touch with him. He continued to write in Hungarian and in French—articles in periodicals and a good many novels, mostly privately published, mostly difficult to follow, and always full of his exotic experiences. Many of these were only recognized as Peer Gyntian fantasies after his death in the Swiss south.

If Denes taught us to read with sensitivity, Patko taught us to see. He was one of the country’s most gifted young painters, recognized by his peers but not yet known to the public, when he became our “drawing teacher.” With him, we were rid of the mechanical copying exercises that had dulled our senses in countless drawing class periods over several years. He showed us and discussed with us slides of many of the masterpieces of the art of all countries and periods—especially Roman and Italian art, which he knew intimately from several years of residence in the Eternal City. He also had us draw and showed us how. The emphasis was no longer on manual skill alone but on recognizing the essential characteristics of the object we were drawing. A good many of us who had given up and assumed that we would never learn to represent anything on paper realized that perhaps we might.

Magyar, stocky and agile, his white hair cut short and square like the bristles of a brush, when seen in the street always deep in thought and always wearing the same green loden topcoat from fall through spring, taught us mathematics. He was a wild man obsessed with his subject and feared by all who did not know him, as well as by some who did. He could rant and rave when a student in whom he had confidence failed to think logically or when one showed signs of having memorized a formula instead of deducing it. If religious faith was the foundation on which a man like Polgary stood, Magyar’s feet were firmly planted on reason. It was only decades later, when I was trying to help my daughters through the complicated labyrinth of “new math” that I realized that Magyar had taught us that, having arrived at it in his own way. I think his system was simpler and more logical than the one which committees of mathematicians developed a generation later. Somehow—surely not by any known method of pedagogy, but probably simply by his own serious and enthusiastic devotion to mathematical reason—he aroused our interest in math to a point where at least 20 percent of our class regularly worked out and sent solutions to relatively advanced problems published in the mathematical journal for high school students. Magyar’s favorite writer was George Bernard Shaw. When I visited him at the hospital where he lay dying of cancer, he said how much he regretted that he would never see Shaw’s Major Barbara, which was then playing in a Budapest theatre. I stopped studying math seriously in the remaining two years of school—there were too many other subjects that interested me by then—but the basis which Professor Magyar had given me carried me through, all the way through elementary calculus.

There were other memorable teacher personalities, not the least among them Mr. Zamory, our science teacher and, in the last two years, our classroom teacher as well. A frontline explosion in the war had left him with a severe speech impairment and the loss of the use of his right arm. Boys are often cruel and might take advantage of a teacher’s infirmities. No one thought of that in Zamory’s case. His warmth and absolute integrity assured him the respect of even the most irreverent. We recalled at the reunion one of the dramatic events of our last school year. Erich, having discovered his pride in his German ancestors, celebrated Hitler’s march into Austria by coming to school wearing the Hungarian National Socialist uniform of green shirt and black tie. When Zamory caught sight of him, he used his good left arm to deliver two powerful slaps to the young man’s face before sending him home for the day. Unfortunately, the lesson was not learned. Erich was last seen in the uniform of a colonel of the party militia organizing the final desperate defense and destruction of Budapest’s Castle Hill. But Zamory had done his best for decency and order.

Men like these were the school. Hungary was a very poor country, so there was nothing else. No frills. In our first location, the barracks, there was no gymnasium. Physical education consisted of calisthenics in the school yard when weather permitted, in a corridor when not. Sports were popular, as in most countries, but arrangements were left to the families, the Boy Scouts, or, as we grew older, to each of us. Still, in proportion to the population, Hungary produced as many Olympic medal winners as any nation. Our class also included a later Olympian, a gold medal in fencing. There was no school library, but some public libraries were available, and books were fortunately relatively inexpensive. There was no question of hands-on laboratories—the teacher demonstrated experiments in the various sciences. Can you teach science that way? The question was put to me some three decades later by the U.S. AID educational advisor in Vietnam, a former school superintendent of a middle-sized city in New York State. I had pleaded with him that he provide equipment and supplies for such demonstration experiments to the Vietnamese high schools. He was prepared to give them American-style high-school science labs, for which the Vietnamese schools had no space and personnel. How can you teach science any other way? I admitted that “hands-on” sounded better but recited a list of famous American scientists—Wigner of Princeton, Edward Teller, Szent-Gyoergyi, the discoverer of Vitamin C, and others— who had only watched demonstrations in high school. How did I know? Because they attended the same kind of schools as I did. Oh, Zamory and other teachers knew that we ought to be given a chance to fiddle with microscopes and test tubes, and they did their best to give those most interested the opportunity to do so on occasional afternoons.

The school day ran from eight in the morning until one in the afternoon, so the afternoons were ours for this kind of activity, or for private language and music lessons, or for sports—and for four to six hours of homework. The teachers’ afternoons were theirs for class preparation, reading, the correcting of papers and examinations—and for whatever they wished to do for some of us. Some were active in their field or in the community, of which all were highly respected members or leaders. Parents, whatever their own place in society, treated them with the deference due to those to whom the development of their children was entrusted, and the children, however irreverent at times, naturally adopted the basic attitude of their parents. The teachers were masters, underpaid, but not abused agents of some school board condemned to spend their energies on baby (or teenager) sitting and paperwork. In fact, there was little paper work, as the non-teaching staff of the school consisted of only the director and the janitor. And, there was probably no budget.

Reflecting on these things at the formal session of the class reunion, I wondered whether less might be more in education. Who could argue against the great choice of courses which many of our “good” schools now offer, or against luxurious sports facilities, well-stocked school libraries, and the vast range of extracurricular activities available to our children? But the price may be the impossibility of setting priorities and of finding funds to pay truly qualified teachers. The system of students running in complex patterns from classroom to classroom in search of their special electives leads to the destruction of group cohesion and the confusion of the young. Organizational complexities diffuse the focus in the activities of many a teacher.

After the session, we gathered in front of the building for the brief wreath-laying ceremony. Handshakes, moments of mutual recognition, “second takes,” led to lively exchanges of experiences, questions about those not present, about families, children, and grandchildren, and arrangements were made for get-togethers of smaller groups for meals on that day or the days following. Janos, a physician now, tall and solid of build, just as he was a half a century earlier, only his hair all white now, said he had to leave us and would not be able join for the rest of the reunion. Dini, the surgeon, and he had talked, and Dini told me a few minutes later that Janos had authorized him to tell me that he had got out of his sickbed to be with us that morning. He was in the final stages of an incurable cancer. There were other tragedies, recent or long past, to which those absent had succumbed and which some of those present had survived. Henci, who never found his place in civilian life after he returned from the Soviet Union as an army officer, had recently died, an alcoholic bar pianist. His cousin, Karcsi, an ever cheerful and friendly member of our crowd, had been a fighter pilot and was shot down by an American plane over western Hungary before he reached his 22nd birthday. Istvan, perhaps the most brilliant student in the class, was in a labor battalion near the Austrian border toward the end of the war and killed there only days before he would have been liberated. Norman, the light-blond Nordic son of a Jewish Hungarian father and a Norwegian mother, was also in labor service. Another classmate, an army officer, seems to have passed him in a military vehicle in the chaos of the German retreat from Russia. He could (or would?) not give him a ride. Neither of them returned. Bela, whom I remembered as a somewhat helpless and disturbed youth, told me almost eagerly in horrible detail about how his father, a wealthy Jewish banker, committed suicide when the Germans moved into Hungary. He jumped out the window and was seen in his blood on the pavement not only by Bela but by his mother and younger sister as well. Bela supported his family for years from his pay of an unskilled laborer. Retired now, he was happily married to a good woman and making a little money by buying and selling almost anything.

Our class produced few spectacular successes. There were a few doctors, engineers, high-ranking managers of state enterprises, law-school graduates working as bureaucrats, an Israeli and an American diplomat, a professor of French linguistics at the Paris Sorbonne, a forestry engineer, a Hungarian radio executive—almost all retired now. The majority had evidently lived decent and useful lives. Andrew’s was, in its way, perhaps the greatest accomplishment. Son of a functionally illiterate janitor, he was to have left school at 14 in order to earn money. But he had in effect been self-supporting since the age of 12 by rising at five and working at the central vegetable market before school every morning and after classes in the afternoon. He kept up this regime and not only paid his father for his room and board, but also saved up the money needed to put his parents into business by buying them a vegetable stand—which they rapidly drove into the ground. Meanwhile, Andrew was an excellent student, a superb gymnast, and a young man of charm and poise. People were eager to help him, and he managed to work his way through law school. He had a good job in a government department but did not advance rapidly. His emphasis on truth and character—Dr. Polgary’s gift and the effect of his own youth—did not serve him well in times dominated by liars and hypocrites. Now retired and tending his garden in a village not far from Budapest, he seemed just a little bitter about the modest results of the great struggles of his childhood and youth, yet proud that he had made it entirely on his own.

Fifty years ago we took a long, slow, meandering farewell walk through our school buildings and their neighborhood. Now, the day after our reunion, it had its sequel in a long walk through Budapest’s cemeteries. Levente had done an amazing job of preparation. Through devoted and painstaking research he had located almost all the graves of our teachers and classmates buried there. We laid wreaths on all of them. It fell to me to put flowers on Karcsi’s grave, because he was my friend and because in the war I wore the same American uniform as his “enemy” who shot him down. I hope Karcsi would have understood.

Politics was no more than a tangential topic of conversation. I do not think we deliberately avoided it, but for us there were just then more vital subjects to talk about. As we walked out into the street after the closing reunion dinner, the mood was serious, heavy with memories. Yet, there was also a sense of elation about ties retied. Gyuri was very happy that he had made the trip from Israel. There were also doubts about the future—especially about the Hungarian future. We found ourselves in the crowds dispersing from the first free political demonstration in Hungary since the revolution of 1956—a demonstration against Romanian oppression of the Hungarian minority in Transylvania. That was perhaps the only cause on which all of us would have seen eye to eye. It was also the beginning of the whole astonishing sequence of political developments that led to the liberation of Hungary. I doubt that any of us could have predicted the way in which that would happen or the speed with which it would be accomplished.


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